Burn by Elizabeth Jaeger

Trigger Warning: Cutting


It is warm for November. Sweat beads up on my shorn scalp and drips into my eyes as I complete a four mile run. Fumbling with my keys in the hallway of the apartment, I hear my phone ring. I open the door and lunge for it.

“Hello,” I gasp, trying to catch my breath.

“Did I wake you?” It is my father. His voice, as always, is stern.

“No.” It is Saturday morning, but I have been awake since dawn. I do not sleep much. Life is easier when my dreams do not have time to sink their teeth into me. I step into the kitchen and fill a glass with water.

“Good,” Dad declares then ploughs forward. “Will you be home on Wednesday night or Thursday morning?”

Oh right, Thanksgiving! I collapse into the plush white seat pushed into the corner of the room.

“You are coming home, aren’t you?” There is a touch of alarm in his voice, but he brushes it aside, as he does everything that disturbs his equilibrium, his illusion of how things are.

I stare into my glass of water and watch air bubbles rising slowly to the surface. When I don’t respond, he continues as if I had.

“It would be nice if you wore the blouse your mother bought you the last time you came home.”

“But it’s a blouse,” I object weakly, knowing my words won’t be heard. “And it is pink.”

“It would mean a lot to your mother if you wore it. And if you could wear a pair of pants that didn’t have so many pockets-”

“But I love my cargo pants.” They are broken in and soft and since I won’t carry a purse, where else could I put all my crap?

Dad sighs deeply. “It wouldn’t hurt you to act a little feminine once in awhile,” his voice softens. He senses, perhaps, that he is losing me.

“No, I suppose it wouldn’t,” I lie. It has been hurting me for twenty years. “I should go, someone is at the door,” I lie again. No one ever knocks. No one ever comes to visit. I learned years ago to hold people at a distance. They didn’t understand. No one ever understood.

“So you’ll be home Wednesday night?” He ignores my silence. He needs an answer. I need not to go home but I have no excuse, none good enough. I need to hang up.

“I’ll call you back.” I stand up and discard the water I did not drink.

I walk into the bathroom, set my phone down on the sink and close the door, even though I live alone. I hate mirrors but I am morbidly drawn to them nevertheless. The person I see, the one with short hair and flushed cheeks, is less of a stranger to me than she used to be. But my parents…I should have waited until after the holidays to cut my hair.

I run the water in the bathtub, steam rising up from the water. Careful now, I avoid the mirror as I undress. Slowly, I lower myself into the embracing, comforting heat and as the water envelops me, I remember. I hate remembering, but memories rise up unbidden and I can to do nothing but surrender myself to what I had tried so hard to forget.

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I was eight years old when I first dared to speak the truth. My bowling teammates and friends gathered around the vending machine popping in coins and collecting Bugles, Rollos and Fritos. Bowling balls slammed into pins, the thundering explosion splintering our conversation, obliterating half of what we said.

“What?” Dina asked. Looking at me, seeing my lips move, she knew I had said something but the strike across from us blotted out my voice.

“I just look like a girl, but I’m really a boy.” I repeated, having initially spoken in response to something someone else had said. My words prompted an eruption of laughter.

Dina squinted hard at me. “Prove it.” She dared.

“How?” I asked, already regretting it.

“Go into the boys’ bathroom.”

Desperate to have someone believe me, I foolishly complied. As I opened the door, the stench from the urinals smacked me in the nose. Outside, the ripple of laughter ripped through met, taunting me, telling me that I had made a grave mistake.

Later that night, while I sat on the blue scratchy couch watching TV, the telephone rang. My mother, who had been doing the dishes in the kitchen, three feet away from the phone, answered it. I could hear her distant garbled voice, but I paid little attention to it until she summoned my father. Five minutes later, he flicked the television off. Looking up from the dark, empty screen, I saw my mother’s scowl and my dad’s indignation hovering over me.

“Dina’s mother just called,” my dad’s voice raged. “She said you went into the boys’ bathroom. Is it true?” The vein in his left temple beat with the rhythm of his words, the tempo of his accusation.

Shaking, fear flooding my entire body, I knew better than to lie. At that moment I hated Dina, the nasty little worm who had ratted me out. I nodded in response to my father’s question, a simple admission of my transgression.

“Why?” My mother shrieked, mortified by my actions.

“Because Dina dared me,” my voice squeaked as tears filled my eyes.

“Because you told her you were a boy!” She shouted, her face red – an overripe tomato. “But you are not a boy,” she grabbed me by the arm, and dragged me into the dining room, shoving my face in front of the mirror. “You are a girl, a very pretty GIRL!”

I tried to speak, but the girl in the glass, braided hair framing her face, silenced me.

“For the next week, you will not watch Little House,” my father declared, like a judge sentencing me for my crime.

“That’s not fair,” I wailed. “It’s my favorite show.”

“Then next time,” he glared at me, his eyes full of distain, “Do not disappoint us.”

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The water in the tub has turned cold. I reach for the razor to shave my legs. God forbid I do not shave, the sin would be unforgivable. Above me, a prism left by a former tenant dangles in front of the small window. It catches the early morning sunlight, shattering it into dozens of rainbows which dance upon the sterile white walls. My hands unthinkingly disassemble the plastic green and white razor. One rainbow glints off the blade, the same blade I press against my thigh. My fingers move, slicing my skin. Blood washes my flesh. I watch it drip then slowly dissipate through the water. I lean back relaxed, finding that I can finally breathe.

I pick up the phone and dial. “Hey, Dad. I’ll see you on Wednesday night.”

“Will you wear your new blouse?” He is adamant, and there is no way around it without another battle. I’m exhausted from years of fighting.

“Sure,” I trace the deep cut on my leg. “What ever you want, as long as it makes you happy.”

Elizabeth Jaeger

Elizabeth Jaeger

Elizabeth Jaeger has recently earned an MFA degree in creative writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her work has been published in Blue Planet Journal, Italian Americana, Yellow Chair Review, Drowing Gull, Icarus Down Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer.
Elizabeth Jaeger

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